Friday, January 31, 2014

album review: 'transgender dysphoria blues' by against me!

It's a fairly well-know fact in punk music that if you stick around in the scene long enough, you will get sick of punk music. As much as I love punk, it's a genre that has a certain instrumental simplicity in its purest form, which means many acts will stop playing punk fairly early in their careers and move in different instrumental directions. Some go towards mainstream pop, some go towards folk, a fair chunk gravitate towards metal or hardcore, and of course you have the post-punk scene. And as the genre changes, the songwriting topics tend to change as well, and thus you'll end up getting all manner of cries of 'sellout' the second the band opts for a different sound.

And really, I don't think that's entirely fair - the set of punk 'ideals' and songwriting topic have always been nebulous and hard to define, and there have been punk acts like Green Day who have held onto decidedly punk sensibilities lyrically while exploring arena rock and other genres. I'd only be inclined to brand an act a 'sellout' if the songwriting took a notable dip in quality, and say what you will about Green Day, but their shallow and hyperbolic lyrics have been a consistent factor throughout their entire career (you know it's true).

But then we have Against Me!, a punk act that sprung up in the early 2000s with serious songwriting chops, a knack for great hooks, and a lot of instrumental talent with real punk flair... and yet after those first two albums, it'd be hard to argue that they didn't 'sell out'. From Searching For A Former Clarity onward you could see the changes across the board, with the grime and instrumental texture slowly being scraped away, the ideals and wry self-awareness that characterized their early work falling away, and the songwriting only coming across as more conventional and painfully mundane (still good on a technical level, mind you, but not nearly as interesting). The band still had a knack for great hooks and catchy material, but by the time White Crosses was released in 2010, I'd have a hard time calling the band a 'punk' act rather than your standard arena rock crowd-pleaser, which lyrics that were shallower than ever and a seeming complete lack of self-awareness. And look, I like earnestness, but Against Me!'s early appeal for me was in the balance between razor-sharp insight and self-aware populism. And by White Crosses, that was almost entirely gone, leaving behind a pretty solid but not particularly interesting 'arena punk' band.

But I have to admit, I was curious about their newest release Transgender Dysphoria Blues. The title was inspired by lead singer Laura Jane Grace coming out as a trans woman in 2012 and her struggles with gender dysphoria that she's endured her whole life (and in retrospect, come up a surprising amount on early Against Me! albums). In terms of an album topic, you just don't see many albums discussing trans issues, and coupled with the fact Against Me! were now on their own label and were returning to their rougher sound, I was really interested in what this record would put forward. So how did go?

Well, the album is pretty damn good. I wouldn't call it great by any stretch of the mind, but in terms of late period Against Me! records, it's a promising step and an enjoyable listen, even though I'd argue it didn't quite go far enough to become something truly special or memorable, which is disappointing.

I should explain, and let's start with the unequivocal positives that Against Me! have always brought to the table. Laura Jane Grace has a phenomenal voice that's great for punk, harsh enough to have raw energy and yet melodic and emotive enough to show real complexity and nuance. And the band's knack for crisp, melody-driven punk rock with great guitar riffs will always be something that I'll like. Long-time drummer Warren Oates left the band for this record (to pursue a career as a restauranteur of all things), but punk veteran Atom Willard, formerly of Rocket From The Crypt, The Offspring, and Angels & Airwaves, steps up and adds a lot of hammering force to the record that definitely stands out. And better still is the production, which has stripped away most of the theatrics from previous records into something more raw and impassioned - not quite as gritty as their early albums, but showing more texture than Against Me! has put forward in years.

But the big drawing card of this album is the subject matter and themes, where for once I think Against Me! newfound earnestness actually pays some big dividends. Laura does not pull punches as she describes her frustration and lack of belonging, the judgmental stares and discrimination. In particular she focuses on society's standards of beauty with regards to women and this is where the album becomes something special, as she both yearns for the acceptance and recoils against the shallowness, which comes out strongest in 'FUCKMYLIFE666', one of the album standouts. And then you have tracks like 'Drinking With The Jocks', which viciously targets the social strata in which she always felt uncomfortable before transitioning, and now showing how she's going to flip it on its head. The best tracks on this album focus on transgender dysphoria, and Laura's intricately written, incredibly descriptive, pull-no-punches style of lyricism works incredibly well, especially on album standouts like 'True Trans' and 'Paralytic States'.

But I just wish the rest of the album was as consistently strong. Whenever this album moves away from the transgender topics towards more 'conventional' punk subjects, you can almost feel the energy and interest in the material drop away. The songs might not be badly written, but material like 'Osama bin Laden as the Crucified Christ' and 'Black Me Out' feel strikingly out of place on this album, shots of white-hot rage that feel directionless and ultimately don't add up to much. This becomes frustrating because while the material we get talking about the trans experience is very strong, it doesn't feel completely realized or articulated. I feel there are more sides of the story I'm not hearing, which leaves me wondering why Laura didn't write more of that sort of material (she's on her own label, she could have released it if she wanted). And maybe it's just me, but I find this album a little underwritten - even some of the best songs begin repeating themselves fairly quickly. And sure, you get some of that with punk music - raw force over nuance - but when you have such an interesting and intensely personal subject, I'm confused why Laura thought repetition would prove more effective. Overall, it adds to an album that doesn't feel nearly as focused as it should, and that's a disappointment.

Look, I don't think Against Me! are going to be able to recreate their glory days in the early 2000s, and I'm not asking for that - the band is very clearly in a different place. But for an album tackling a subject that is rarely ever spoken about in music, Transgender Dysphoria Blues feels a little underweight. I do like this album, certainly more than Against Me!'s last two releases, but I can't help but feel this record could have had more of a punch and a tighter focus. That being said, it's definitely a good step in the right direction in terms of production and subject matter, there are some great hooks on this album, and when Laura Jane Grace goes for broke, she really nails it. This album is a strong 7/10 from me, and even if you're not a huge fan of punk, I urge you check it out.

After all, the roots of punk were in inspiring social change, and in a world where the trans community gets discriminated against more than most, awareness and social change can only make things better, and I'd be happy with Laura Jane Grace leading the charge.

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